Sharon, Vt. — Faithful Mormons on Friday celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the fastest-growing religions in the world.
"A sense of history overwhelms me. I feel as if I am straddling the centuries," church President Gordon B. Hinckley said in a taped statement broadcast Friday to members in 160 countries.
"This is a glorious and wonderful day. It is a day of remembrance, a day of great rejoicing, a day for gratitude and thanksgiving," Hinckley said.
The commemoration included celebrations at Smith's birthplace monument in Vermont, where 450 people packed into a church meeting house, and at the church's Salt Lake City conference center, where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed for a crowd of thousands.
Hinckley, 95, had been expected to speak live from Vermont, but he changed plans midday Friday and taped his remarks instead, then returned home to avoid a winter storm, said church spokesman Bruce Olsen.
Joseph Smith founded the church in 1830, 10 years after he claimed to experience a vision of God and Jesus in a grove of trees near his family home in Palmyra, N.Y.
He said an angel named Moroni led him to a set of buried gold plates that contained the ancient records of Christ's dealings with the inhabitants of the Americas. Smith's translation of the plates became known as the Book of Mormon, the text on which Mormons base their religion.
Smith's original church had just six members, mostly his family, and only 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon were published at first. He sent out a handful of missionaries.
Today, Mormonism has more than 12 million members - half of them outside the U.S.
"If (non-Mormons) care at all about the history of religion in their own country, they should certainly be interested in the influence of Joseph Smith," said Armand Mauss, a professor emeritus of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University, who is currently a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate University in California.
The growth of the church since the mid-20th century has helped change the perceptions non-Mormons have of the faith, for the better and for the worse, said Mauss, himself a lifelong church member and a past president of the Mormon History Assn.
"The positives are those which see Mormonism as an increasingly legitimate religious tradition, entitled to a certain amount of admiration and appreciation for its unique teachings and lifestyle," he said. "This is also accompanied by more negative feelings as the political and economic influence of the church sometimes looms large."
Attention to the church could grow if Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, decides to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Some have speculated he could have a difficult time winning over Christian conservatives, some of whom do not consider Mormonism to be a Christian religion.
Mormons are viewed largely as ultraconservative because the church has strict lifestyle standards, shunning alcohol, for example, and favoring traditional family practices.
Faithful members also adhere to a standard of tithing 10 percent of their income to the church, which is said to be worth billions but never publicly reports its annual income or expenses.